Former US-President Jimmy Carter once articulated the following statement:
“We all realize that religious differences have often been a cause or a pretext of war. Less well known is the fact that the actions of many religious persons and communities point in another direction. They demonstrate that religion can be a potent force in encouraging the peaceful resolution of conflict.”
This quote expresses an increasingly common view by scholars and practitioners alike, which holds that rather than only inciting war (as the current activities of some extremist religious groups might suggest), religion can contribute effectively to conflict resolution. To illustrate this point, the scholar and rabbi Marc Gopin has argued that “[w]orld religions have a reservoir of pro-social values of profound subtlety and effectiveness that, if utilized well, could form the basis of an alternative to violence in coping with conflict or coping with devastating injury” (Gopin, 2000 [emphasis added]). The emphasis in this quote truly has to be on the phrase ‘if utilized well’ because most world religions have an ambivalent nature, possessing both a theology of peace and a discourse that justifies violence. While recognizing this dual role of religion and the importance of the discourse around it, politicians and practitioners have to find ways to engage religious actors in peace-making efforts. There are already numerous examples of governments cooperating with religious organizations in peace-making efforts, such as the current cooperation between the German Federal Foreign Office and the Catholic lay organization Sant’Egidio in the conflict in the Central African Republic.
Sometimes the cooperation between governments and religious actors is successful in contributing to conflict resolution, sometimes it is not. Most recently, conflict resolution scholars have focused on the conditions under which religious actors are successful in bringing conflicting parties to the negotiation table for peace talks. Interestingly, one of the comparative advantages of religious conflict mediators is their so-called “insider-partiality”. Lederach and Wehr (1991) have defined insider-partiality as a special form of partiality of a mediator “from within the conflict, whose acceptability to the conflictants is rooted not in distance from the conflict or objectivity regarding the issues, but rather in connectedness and trusted relationships with the conflict parties”. Particularly, insider-partial religious actors enjoy a high level of trust and connectedness within their society. Lederach and Wehr have argued that by being a member of the conflict society, the insider-partial mediator knows the conflict and the adversaries particularly well and has a high interest in an enduring resolution of the conflict because he has to live with the result of the mediation procedure in the same way as the disputants. These features of an insider-partial mediator cause the disputing parties to regard him as a trustworthy and legitimate third party in resolving their conflict.
For governments and international organizations engaged in conflict resolution, this means that they have to enhance their cooperation with local religious actors. Sometimes this can be difficult because of language or cultural barriers or because of the different rules according to which governments function vis-à-vis religious actors. Nevertheless, exploring the opportunities for dialogue on eye-level, respecting each other’s specific ways of working, the cooperation between governments and religious actors is a promising way forward. Both entities will enhance their understanding of each other and can focus on each other’s strengths in trying to find peace in a society at conflict.
by Lilian M. Kurz, Project Manager PIRON Global Development